Nintendo’s long-awaited Switch announcement in 2021 introduced an upgraded model to consider: The Switch OLED, with new display technology that improves color, contrast, and brightness. This was quickly followed by another important handheld announcement: Valve introduced the Steam Deck, a handheld option to play basically anything in the Steam Library.
Which one is more worth your time? That may depend on the type of gamer you are — let’s take a look at the specs, displays, controls, and gaming options to see just how the two devices stack up.
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Specs are an especially useful comparison for these two handhelds, as they immediately show some of the most important differences between the devices. Take a look at our comparison chart, and a few things will probably jump out. First, the Switch OLED has several upgrades from other Switch models beyond its new OLED panel, including a slightly larger display and more storage space. This puts it nearer to the Steam Deck in some respects, but also makes the model slightly heavier than before.
Second, the Steam Deck isn’t so much competing with the Switch OLED as it is trying to be a handheld mimicking a gaming laptop. While the Switch OLED is limited to its base specs, the Deck can be upgraded to vastly improved RAM and storage — and the Deck’s processor packs significantly more power to help handle a variety of popular PC gamers like Destiny 2 and RDR2.
Nintendo Switch OLED
|Dimensions||10 by 4.2 by .55 inches||11.7 by 4.6 by 1.9 inches|
|Weight||0.71 pounds without controllers, 0.93 pounds with controllers||1.47 pounds|
|Processor||Nvidia customized Tegra/Tegra X1+||AMD-customized APU Zen 2|
|Storage||64GB of flash storage, expandable through microSD||64GB to 512GB of flash storage, expandable through microSD|
|A/V output||HDMI out||No|
|I/O output||One USB-C, USB 3.0, USB 2.o x2||One USB-C with DisplayPort 1.4 alt mode|
|Communication||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0|
|Controller||Joy-Con or Pro Controller||Built into system|
|Screen size and resolution||7 inches, 1280 x 720, OLED||7 inches, 1280 x 800 resolution|
|Battery life||4.5 to 9 hours||2 to 8 hours|
|Physical media||Proprietary cartridge||N/A|
|Availability||Available October 8, 2021||Available December 2021 or later|
|Price||$350||$399 to $649|
While both handhelds may look similar at a glance, there are some significant differences. Both models do focus on thumbstick controls, but the Switch retains its detachable JoyCon controls that can be combined to form a separate controller, something the Steam Deck cannot do. If you take a closer look, you’ll also note that the thumbsticks have a staggered placement on the Switch OLED but are both located at the top of the Steam Deck (more on the big control differences below).
Otherwise, it’s a very close game on the design front. The ability to recharge in the dock and connect to a TV is shared by both devices (and neither supports 4K resolution, unfortunately). The displays are the same size, and the two devices weigh roughly the same as well. While both have microSD expansion slots (this is especially important for managing some of the larger Steam games), the Steam Deck has a USB-C with DisplayPort 1.4 Alt mode for connection to external displays, while the Switch OLED includes a built-in LAN port instead.
Nintendo’s Switch OLED controls remain unchanged from previous models and hold no surprises. In addition to the two thumbsticks, there are two sets of four-cluster buttons and two shoulder buttons — along with the support for a combined controller if you prefer. The simplicity of this setup has serious advantages for casual players: You don’t need to be a master to just pick up the Switch OLED and start playing it, and everything is immediately easy to understand.
The Steam Deck, on the other hand, takes the approach of, “More is better.” The handheld is stacked with more control options than we’ve seen on anything similar: There are the classic two thumbsticks, a four-cluster of buttons, and a D-pad that most gamers will be familiar with. However, there also are two mini trackpads designed for your thumbs so players can experiment with touch-based controls for specific actions, as well as four shoulder buttons for full FPS support. But that’s not all — on the back of the device, there are four additional back buttons that can be mapped to specific functions as needed. It’s clearly made with even more complex PC games in mind.
The only thing the Deck really lacks compared to the Switch OLED is the ability to form a separate controller. You’ll have to spend more time learning just how to use the Deck, but its wide variety of control options help to support an equally broad variety of games.
What if you want to add accessories for easier gameplay? Does using handheld controls worry you when it comes to some of your favorite PC games? The Switch OLED and Steam Deck take very different approaches here.
For the Switch OLED, Nintendo continues to limit its Bluetooth connections to only specifically approved devices … which are fairly limited. You can choose from an assortment of controllers designed to work with the Switch, but that’s about it. If you want to directly connect a mouse or keyboard, you’ll have to do it through the USB-C port on the Switch or the dock for it to work.
The Steam Deck, meanwhile, attempts to be as open to accessories as possible. Valve’s Bluetooth 5.0 is fully open to any Bluetooth keyboard and mouse setups that you may be interested in using (check out our wireless mouse guide to learn more), along with extra USB-A 3.1 and USB-A 2.0 ports for direct connections. This makes the Deck very friendly for playing on a larger screen when you want, or simply finding your preferred setup. It’s really no competition which option is better for players.
First things first: The Switch OLED model doesn’t have any intrinsic differences when it comes to what games are supported on the Switch. The OLED panel is a big jump in color improvement and excellent for more vivid details, but it doesn’t affect game support in any meaningful way.
One of the Steam Deck’s acclaimed advantages is that you can access your whole Steam library on it, and with cloud saving, you keep all your progress no matter where you are playing. Valve has also promised full compatibility with other platforms like the Epic Games Store and uPlay, as well as potential compatibility with Xbox Cloud Gaming. As we mentioned, some games may require extra storage — and there appear to be a few bugs to work out with the system the Deck is using — but otherwise, you can try to play anything you want from major PC gaming storefronts.
The Switch OLED acts like all Switch models when it comes to games: Players can only shop for games on the Nintendo Game Store (or purchase their physical versions). That doesn’t mean you can only play Nintendo games — plenty of other games are available for the Switch, but developers have to put the work in to bring their titles to Nintendo’s platform, so the library is by nature smaller. However, Nintendo’s closed system also means that many of its original games will not be available on the Steam Deck.
This is where players need to make a choice based on their preferences. Is it more important to play the latest Zelda and Super Smash Bros.? Does the handheld need to support popular PC games like the Witcher series or something like Warframe? Or are you most interested in titles that are readily available on both platforms, like Fortnite or Hades?
Order the Nintendo Switch OLED here.
The Switch OLED comes with a significant price jump compared to older Switches: It will cost $350 to purchase. That’s not far behind the base model of the Steam Deck, which starts at $399. However, the Deck offers tiers of improved specs all the way up to $649 depending on what you want to customize, while the Switch OLED doesn’t have any other options.
When it comes to availability, the Switch Deck allows users to reserve a Deck for themselves, and they will start shipping in December 2021 and at staggered intervals throughout 2022. The Nintendo Switch OLED will start shipping on October 8, 2021, but Nintendo does not currently have any available pre-orders.
We’d like to spend some serious time with both the Switch OLED and Steam Deck to see just how they play (and display) a variety of different games. However, the extra options for increasing the Steam Deck’s power and the better compatibility and control options make it the superior device. The big question is just what kinds of games you like to play. If you’re primarily a Nintendo fan, don’t worry about the Deck, just decide if you want an improved color and contrast experience. If you are mainly interested in PC games, especially the ability to play bigger PC games on a handheld, the Deck is the device that you’ll be interested in.
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